Michael Marder: The philosopher’s plant. An intellectual herbarium (2014)

First, I must warn anyone thinking that this report will help them gain easy access to the book. I am in fact tempted to consider this more of a report on my reading of the book than a report on the book.

The first time I saw the title of Michael Marder’s book I was immediately fascinated because it made me curious about the link between two areas that have attracted me ever since I was a student. As a student in upper secondary school, I studied botany and part of the course was devoted to the collecting of 100 plants to complete a herbarium following certain predetermined criteria, such as it having a minimum of 20 species of moss (bryophytes). I loved that work, that is, I loved to walk in the woods, meadows, and moorlands, and to search for, study, compare, and speculate about species. The process of pressing and conserving was less interesting because I always felt that the plant was left alone on the paper, deprived of its context or natural environment. As a university student I studied the history of philosophy and specialized in aesthetics. Well, I was young and knew little about how to read the many companion texts that listed philosophers and explained their world views or their ways of turning the world into a system of thought. I remember that due to the monotonous style of the textbook authors, the various philosophers and systems almost merged into one and the same. Although Marder’s text manages to engage me as a reader in many ways, it still runs the risk of turning an exciting idea into an intellectual exercise following a standardized set-up.

Although, as Marder states, plants in philosophy are “consigned to a grey area between dead stones and living animals” (p. 210), the idea of the book is beautiful: Marder has walked the woods, meadows, and moorlands of philosophy and philosophers to study the role of plants in their texts and thinking. Or, as proclaimed in the prologue, “this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought” (p. xiv). To mention one telling example of how this works, I would like to mention Marder’s reading of Hegel and of how his philosophy of dialectics may be found in a passage about grapes: “In the transition from grapes to wine, nature is dialectically transformed into culture” (p. 153).

In addition to Hegel’s grapes, the vegetal life Marder has found in the philosophers’ texts is rich and promising, comprising the plane tree (Plato), wheat (Aristotle), the “great plant” (Plotinus), pears (Augustine), celery (Avicenna), the palm tree (Maimonides), blades of grass (Leibniz), the tulip (Kant), the apple tree (Heidegger), sunflowers (Derrida), and the water lily (Irigaray). Interestingly, the last one is the only female philosopher in Marder’s herbarium. This said, she is perhaps the most precious one if I understand him correctly. It seems to me that in Irigaray’s plant thinking Marder finds that “[e]verything Western philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have discarded and devalued about plants is lovingly retrieved, reassessed, and cultivated” (p. 219).

The structure of the book is classic: one chapter is dedicated to each philosopher (and plant), and presented in historical order according to the time of the philosopher’s work. The opening of each chapter is characterized by the intention to connect the reader of the book with the key plant, text, or botanical setting of the philosopher. In my opinion, these passages are decisive in connecting and engaging the reader with the rest of the chapter.

So, what did I find in Marder’s herbarium, which plants, thoughts, or linguistic descriptions attracted me the most? An overall observation I made was how long lived and deep rooted a rather limited mindset about plants is in our conceptions of everyday life and values. Like the powerful metaphor and observable facts about seeds, growth, and potential, or the fascinating trope about stealing (forbidden) fruit (see the chapter on Augustine’s pears). By reading Marder I think I have learned that plants often represent a challenge to a philosopher’s main system of thought and hence have either been forced to fit in (usually at a lower stage in some sort of hierarchy) or been relegated to an out-of-place or system-external position, appropriate for saying something crucial about the world that cannot be said based on the fundamental principle of thoughts – such as in the case of Kant’s tulip, which Marder summarizes in the following way:

«A beautiful flower may be too weak to take on the entire system of thought, which has slotted it within the structure of aesthetic judgement and harnessed it to the demands of  purposiveness without purpose. Of one thing we can be nonetheless sure: it does not succumb to the sinister influence of idealization that performs a magical disappearing act, causing everything singular, imperfect, and concrete to dissolve in the mist of indifferent abstraction.» (pp. 150-151)

It is both easy and tempting to pick or cut out passages from Marder’s text and press and conserve them in other contexts, or to graft them with other words to see if new meanings will unfold. In particular, I find the chapter on Derrida’s sunflower to be such a meadow of pickable paragraphs, of passages worth lifting out of context to continue to reflect upon or bear in mind. One such cutting is the following reminder, which I find applies to Derrida’s philosophical practice, to Marder’s book, and to academic works to come:

«Our virtual intellectual herbarium is itself a supplement to the real gardens, fields, and forests where plants grow. But the supplement in deconstruction always comes first, before what it supplements. It is on the basis of the prevailing idea of the plant and its significance (or insignificance) on the scale of beings that the so-called natural resources are managed and agriculture is organized on the industrial model. To change these practices we would first need to alter the supplementary notion of the plant.» (p. 198)

Finally, and perhaps only as a footnote, I would like to mention that I sometimes find it a little hard to distinguish Marder’s own thoughts and ideas about plants and philosophy from his free continuation, or rewriting, of each philosopher’s thinking. But perhaps this is how an organic plant-oriented text works; others’ texts and thoughts grow into or are sown in new texts and thoughts, and this is perhaps how it will continue to function, since “[p]hilosophy is (…) like a plant that metamorphoses as it grows” (p. 167).

10.10.2021 by Nina Goga, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen